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Cinema Eye and the Changing Oscar Doc Race

Awards
by John Anderson
December 31, 2013 12:12 PM
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'The Square'

The voting is under way for the seventh annual Cinema Eye Honors, which will be announced on Jan. 8, at which time the best in the year’s nonfiction will (presumably) be honored by a group that’s already passed one critical test. It’s resisted the full-court press being waged by certain parties in the doc world, a campaign that involves the kind of unrestrained lobbying, egomania, cocktail-partying and ass-kissing usually reserved for far more high-profile awards categories. 

Radius-TWC "20 Feet From Stardom"

The new year is a time for reflection. Contemplation. Resolutions. And dick-swinging: Over the last couple of weeks -- if you were on the right list -- you might have been invited to a private dinner with celebrities for “The Crash Reel” or to Christmas caroling (or Rose Bowl warbling, depending on your coast) with the back-up singers from “20 Feet From Stardom” or a Peggy Siegel-coordinated dinner at the ultra-groovy Core Club for “The Square,” which seems a bit off for a film about the Egyptian Revolution, but what the hell. (The International Documentary Association Best Feature Award winner is also such a good film that it should be on the Cinema Eye roster and for some reason isn’t.) Obscene amounts of money seem to be in circulation on behalf of films during the frenetic post-short-list period leading up to the Oscar noms being announced on Jan. 16. What can happen?

Well, what usually happens at the Oscars. With last year’s changes in the voting rules, the doc race has become a popularity contest, at least during the home stretch, and shortlisted contenders with the most money to spend are buying attention, and probably the votes, to move on to the nomination.  

Cinema Eye is intended as an antidote to the Oscars, and to recognizing the craft of nonfiction filmmaking, as opposed to doing  what most critics and awards voters seem to do, which is judge a doc on the basis of whether they 1) like the characters 2)  agree with the politics, or 3) are left untroubled by the state of the world (by something like “20 Feet from Stardom,” for instance, which is precisely the kind of film that wins Oscars). Conversely, Cinema Eye, in its attempt to recognize the more noble endeavors in doc-making this year have arrived at five nominees that share no kinship, either aesthetic or philosophical, and among whom a choice will be as much a popularity contest as will take place at the Oscars – where, for the second time ever, the entire membership will vote on five films they very well may never have seen. (The five films in the running for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking are Oscar shortlisted critics' faves "The Act of Killing," "Cutie and the Boxer," and "Stories We Tell," plus overlooked Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s "After Tiller" and Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s "Leviathan." Nominees were determined by votes from both a 23-person nominations committee as well as more than 80 directors of this year’s eligible films.)

We have our own picks here, of course, which are probably no better or worse than the five picks of the Cinema Eye group.  On one hand, it’s encouraging: There is so much more diversity, style, perspective, technique and subject matter going on in documentary world it puts the fiction feature world to shame. On the other, it makes picking a winner a no-win situation.

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